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10 September 2015

R u ok? – A conversation we need to have

Published on 10 September 2015
By Pallavi Sinha, Lawyer and Adjunct Lecturer, The College of Law

Are you ok? It’s a conversation on mental health that we should be having regularly, and not just once a year. I’ve had down times where I felt blue, which could be part of riding the waves of life. For some, a low feeling is passed off as “He or She will be right mate”, and/or a sign of weakness.
As an Australian of Indian origin, I’ve noticed that some culturally and linguistically diverse communities have little or no understanding of mental health. How does one figure out if what you’re feeling is a mental health problem and how many people have such problems?

How many people have had a mental health problem
Almost half the Australian adult population has experienced a mental disorder sometime in their lifetime [2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing]. These figures may be underreported as some people are not willing to reveal such personal information or may not have been contacted. Depression is currently ranked fourth among the 10 leading causes of the global burden of disease. It is predicted that by the year 2020, Depression will have jumped to second place

What is the impact?
According to research carried out by Price Waterhouse Coopers as part of the Heads Up initiative created by the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and partner beyondblue, mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $10.9 billion per year. Untreated depression results in more than six million working days lost across the country each year, while 12 million days are estimated to be lost to reduced productivity among staff. High staff turnover is another added cost to businesses.

According to the 2007 survey, mental health can also adversely affect a person’s ability for self-care, and capacity to participate in a household, work, study, relationships or society. Suicidality (suicidal ideation, suicide plans and suicide attempts) in the previous 12 months was three and a half times as high for Australians with a mental disorder as for the general population

I spoke to John Canning, a Partner at top-tier Law firm King & Wood Mallesons – a very articulate and intelligent Lawyer. He had a manic episode in 2007 after working extremely long hours at work. In 2008, he was burnt out. He sought medical help and was diagnosed as having bipolar. John disclosed this to senior management. He said that they were helpful and supportive. He continues to work as a high performing Partner.

In fact, law students and legal practitioners have higher levels of psychological distress and depression than community members of a similar age and sex [According to a sample surveyed in “Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards Depression in Australian Law Students & Lawyers” Sydney: Brain Mind Research Institute Dr Norman Helk, Dr Georgina Luscombe, Dr Sharon Medlow & Professor Ian Hickie.] Earlier this year, Justice Shane Marshall, a Federal Court judge for 20 years told ABC Radio National that he was first diagnosed with depression in 2008. He said that the heavy responsibilities of being a senior judge contributed to his illness and that the pressures for lawyers are getting worse.

John Canning notes that there is a stigma attached to revealing mental health problems that has to be overcome. Older generations don’t tend to talk about it, and discussion wasn’t prevalent in the past.

What can be done
Education is a key to helping remove stigma and providing people with awareness, knowledge and understanding of mental health problems. A Workshop called Resilience@law has been developed by the College of Law in conjunction with Allens Linklaters, Ashurst, Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and King and Wood Mallesons. I have delivered this to law graduates as part of their practical legal training. Many students have told me that the workshop gave them skills and knowledge which could help them face challenges in life, or help others.  I think that such a workshop would be a useful additions to curriculums of school, and the university and training provided to all professions.

Workplaces should also be “mental health friendly”. Dr Shailja Chaturvedi, Consultant Psychiatrist St John of God Hospital says that in workplaces, “A designated person with easy access to whom the employee can talk in confidence is important as well as provision of leave, contact with the employee’s family and assurance of goodwill”. John Canning indicated that King & Wood Mallesons has Wellbeing Officers who are trained to identify potential mental health problems in staff, and encourage staff to get help is required. He added that they have an Employee Assistance Program and staff can talk to him about his experience. He showed me a very impressive powerpoint presentation that he has developed on his personal experience of bipolar.

But what about new staff or those who are vying for promotions and are afraid of the repercussions of disclosing a mental illness? John Canning says that though an individual shouldn’t disclose a mental illness on his or her CV, the key is awareness and how the illness is being managed. If necessary, he takes a walk outside the office, a coffee break or time out from work to manage his illness. Dr Chaturvedi adds that maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a balance between professional and family life is vital. In addition, individuals with a mental concerns should discuss these with a GP or a mental health professional. Talking to a friend or family member can also ease the burden and reduce isolation.

Normalising and increasing the dialogue on mental health and coping strategies is also imperative. "R u ok" should be a regular, rather than annual conversation. Particularly as depression is tipped to be the second highest cause of the global burden of disease by 2020, it is high time that mental illness is given the same regard as other ailments like a common cold. Now that’s an uplifting thought.

If you need support contact Lifeline, 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636. Sites to visit include www.ruok.org.au and www.headsup.org.au